When You Really Have Someone Else’s Back

“I just had a couple of moles taken off my back,” our daughter said, when we visited her new apartment in San Francisco last week.  “It’s really hard for me to clean off the wound myself — and put the bandage back on.  Would you mind doing it, Mom?”

No, of course, I wouldn’t mind.  In fact, I was pleased — even flattered — to be asked.  But I don’t like blood much.  I hoped it wouldn’t be too gory.  It would be embarrassing if I tilted over in a faint when I was trying to help.

So, I was prepared, more or less, when our 27-year-old daughter peeled off the bandages and I looked at her back.

Suddenly, standing there, swabbing her back with soap, then water, then vaseline, I was overcome.

I don’t know whether it happens this way to all mothers, but this is how it happened to me.  You carry a fetus, then baby, for months, nourishing it with your own widening body.  Then, you give birth.  You hold your baby.  You nurse her.  As the weeks and months pass, you and your husband do everything for her.  You feed her, bathe her, diaper her.  You control her whole world.  In fact, you are her whole world.

This closed, tight circle is outgrown slowly, then with increased speed over the passing years.  Some years, it felt to me that some of the most important actions my husband and I took were to step back and give our daughter, then her brother, more room.  Their worlds expanded far beyond us, from day care to school to overnights to college to other countries.

We were affectionate, but still, we retreated physically.  A hug, a kiss, a handsqueeze.  That’s all.  Your child becomes her own person.  She doesn’t need you hovering over her, touching her, pulling her to you.  She needs to leave.

I stood behind my grown daughter, marveling at her strong, beautiful back.  The wounds were small, with funny black stitches.  It wasn’t any blood or gore that overwhelmed me — it was this kaleidoscope of memories, this primal, fierce wave of love and protectiveness and deep pride that I could never adequately describe to anyone.  I couldn’t even bear to feel it too long.  I had to step back.

I patched my baby up with clean bandages.  Then I sent her back out into the world.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

11 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Ruth — This was too beautiful for words.

  • So very true and very beautiful.

  • Mary Link

    You’ve brought tears to my eyes. My baby girl is 30 yrs old.

  • So wonderful that you share these moments of grace.

  • Beautiful essay on parenting adult kids.

  • It must be so hard to let them go. Mine are still so little but I already think I’ll never forgive them for growing up. This essay is so beautiful. I think you should publish it in a magazine, not just on this blog! (Not that this blog isn’t wonderful, it is!)

  • Gorgeous. I so understand. I look at my 21 year old daughter who is bursting forth with independence and remember the time when I was everything to her; emotionally and physically. No more. And that is “nature”, what has to be as we move forward. Nonetheless, the memories can pour forth in something as simple as a helping hand requested one more time. One wonders if it will be the last one or it there will still be chances to feel that flood of memories that crystallize the overwhelming love we felt for the helpless child we nurtured to adulthood. 

    Lovely post.

  • Winston Link

    I couldn’t harbor any thought toward raising a child.  A child of mine would never learn to walk.  I’ d be so fearful of seeing him fall and bump his head on the coffee table, I would just have to tie him down, instead.  And that wouldn’t be fair to him— or me.

  • That was so beautiful and well written!

  • So, so true. My son is 26, and I can remember like yesterday how it was to be the centre of his universe and he of mine. Cherish these moments, Ruth.

  • Beautiful. It is amazing how touched I am when one of my grown children needs me for something. To get that mothering role back for a moment–priceless.

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